Constructive conversations

7554741094I recently had the opportunity to use World Cafe for supporting conversation and action with a fine group of educators at the Bucks-Lehigh Edusummit. Ross Cooper was my co-host. Our goal? To discuss how to break from traditional professional development practices to more meaningfully engage teachers in their learning.

I know. We talk about PD and how it doesn’t meet teachers’ needs. We talk about it a lot.

But do we listen? Do we act?

A single conference session is not enough time to fully engage in the World Cafe method, but by modeling its use, we hoped administrators and teacher leaders would leave the session inspired to try the process in their own schools and better engage teacher voices in planning professional learning opportunities.

World Cafe was born in the United States through the work of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in the early 1990s. From World Cafe’s About Us page:

The World Café (TWC)
Using seven design principles and a simple method, the World Café is a powerful social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter, offering an effective antidote to the fast-paced fragmentation and lack of connection in today’s world. Based on the understanding that conversation is the core process that drives personal, business, and organizational life, the World Café is more than a method, a process, or technique – it’s a way of thinking and being together sourced in a philosophy of conversational leadership.”

The essential elements hosts should include in a World Cafe experience include:

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Image via www.theworldcafe.com

After a brief introduction to World Cafe, it was time to identify a question. Defining a “question that matters” is an essential element of World Cafe. A good question has no right or wrong response, evokes emotion, invites inquiry, opens up new possibilities, and perhaps even makes people feel a bit uncomfortable.

Our question for the day:

How do we break from traditional methods of professional development to engage teachers in more passion-based, purposeful professional learning?

We divided into three groups. Each table identified a “table host” who would remain at the table throughout all rotations and inform the next set of participants what the previous group discussed. Timer went up, and the conversations started.

Documentation of learning is important in World Cafe. In our abbreviated version we used digital means to document. One table started a set of Google Slides to share their reflections and others contributed to a shared Google Doc. Given more time in a more formal World Cafe, I would cover the tables in chart or drawing paper and provide markers and other types of artistic media for those who wished to document their learning through doodling or other creative means. Each table’s documentation is then shared out at the end of the cafe in a process known as the Harvest.

Conversations emerged quickly and passionately. Ideas emerge organically from community voices using World Cafe. World Cafe hosts do not facilitate or provide protocols for discussions. World Cafe operates under “recognition of conversation as a core meaning-making process”. I noticed nearly every participant in the room sharing openly in their table groups. It took some longer than others to open up and be comfortable with the format. As I introduced World Cafe, I definitely got a few incredulous looks from teachers who showed up to the session and were perhaps annoyed I wasn’t going to be providing any concrete materials or ideas.

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Some of the conversations included stories about negative experiences with PD, and while I would have preferred things were framed in a more constructive light, I think when we ask people to share their experiences and speak from the heart, they aren’t going to censor out the difficult experiences they’ve had. From one such conversation, a teacher expressed her frustration with being asked to implement initiatives that were hastily rolled out, without teacher input or consideration of whether the new initiatives were really worth teachers’ and students’ time. During the Harvest, she very passionately stated that traditional methods of professional development “do not allow teachers to be creative risk-takers”, and yet that is a quality we seek to instill in our students every day.

Tony Sinanis, my friend and the conference’s keynote, addressed the group as we wrapped and said that he heard everyone discussing the importance of involving teachers in the professional learning process, and in his school, he actually involved students and parents in the process too. Could you imagine if more schools asked children what types of learning experiences they should design for their teachers?

Overall I felt this was a successful session thanks to the willingness of participants to contribute. We received positive feedback from many participants. A middle school principal said he was looking forward to using the technique in his school and another participant said it was the best session she attended thus far. Sometimes our teachers need more than “150 tech tips and tricks” to help them think constructively and innovatively about teaching and learning.

“Talk is cheap”? Perhaps, but if you truly listen to what your constituents need and then you devise a plan of action to address it, that combination of acknowledgment of needs and a willingness to act will help organizations grow.

Resources shared with session participants can be found here.

If you plan professional development opportunities for your organization, consider involving more voices in the process using World Cafe. Have you used World Cafe? Would love for you to share your experiences in the comments!

First steps at protecting students’ privacy.

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I admit that at one point in time I was one of those educators who allowed students to sign into a site using a teacher’s credentials in order to gain access, for example, some of our intermediate students used Prezi for project work and signed in under the same generic Gmail account maintained by the teacher.

Nope:

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Over the past two years, however, thanks to the work of Audrey Watters, Bill Fitzgerald, and many others, maintaining the privacy and protecting my students online has become one of my main priorities as elementary technology coach. Prompted by a statewide communication last year from the education solicitors, our district set to work on making sure that parents were informed and involved in the decisions to allow their children to have accounts established at various educational websites and productivity services.

My scope is elementary, so I read a lot of Terms of Service/Terms of Use and privacy policies to make sure that our kids are even permitted to click on the website let alone establish accounts there. For example, we had been using Today’s Meet to organize classroom conversations in some of our intermediate classes. “No accounts are required, great!” was my initial reaction, and it worked well. I used it with staff in meetings, and I loved the ease and simplicity of use. Dig deeper, read its Terms of Use, and you’ll see that students under the age of 13 are not permitted to use Today’s Meet. Thus, I advise teachers to no longer use this service with elementary students, and it’s not on our approved list of educational websites for students <13 years old.**

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Let me please say that following are our initial steps in helping parents and teachers become more informed and involved in matters of student privacy and data use as it relates to educational service/website use. In no way is our procedure perfect. We need to continually work at improving this system to help ensure parents and students can be advocates for the way children’s privacy is maintained throughout their school careers (and lives). We also use  resources shared by Common Sense Media about privacy and protection to help students understand their rights as digital consumers and creators.

Due to COPPA language, we target our request for permissions to students under 13 years of age, which covers all of our elementary students as well as  a good number of seventh graders in our middle school. (However we really need to consider how we are informing all parents and community members, K-12 and beyond.) In opening week paperwork, parents receive this informational letter (modeled after the letter drafted for us by our solicitors), a consent form requiring parent signature, and the list of district-approved educational websites and productivity services where the child may have an account established. Not all teachers utilize all services on the list nor are they available to all students K-7, but we decided to compile them all on one list for ease of distribution. Parents receive a hard copy of the list in the fall, and we maintain this living list on this district site. If the district approves a new website for use, I update the living sheet and we send home an additional parent permission form to those students who will use the site. Homeroom teachers collect the forms and note any students who have not returned the consent form and forms are compiled/logged in the main office of each building. In the future we hope to integrate the logging of these forms electronically via our SIS and/or allow parents to consent via the parent information portal, but we’re not there yet. Parents are encouraged to contact building principals if they choose to opt out and/or if they have questions involving the educational use of any of the websites. They can choose to opt out of one or more services if they so desire. Learning accommodations are made for students who cannot interact with a digital service.

It’s a start. We still need to provide more parent and teacher education on the specifics of student data and privacy to help them protect their children in all elements of online and mobile interactions, not just their educational website use, which is supervised by caring teachers and school personnel.

I think it’s time we need to reign in our overzealous enthusiasm about the latest and greatest ed tech products and services. I get it. Shiny new things are cool and so are interactive websites and gee, the kids really are going to love it so I’m just going to set them up with usernames and passwords and let’s give it a try! I know, I know. We’re telling you to integrate and be all up in 21st century skills and now we’re warning you about doing so. Shame on us.

Just be smart. Read terms of use and privacy policies. Ask for help if the terms are so full of jargon and nonsense you can’t make heads or tails of the meaning. Be the adult. Inform and involve parents in decisions. Get your administrators informed, because sad to say, they’re likely not the most informed bunch when it comes to student data and privacy.

Protecting students’ data and privacy is becoming increasingly difficult every day, but that’s no excuse for not taking steps to do so.

It starts with you!

 

**At the time of initial publishing, the Today’s Meet terms were captured above. They have since updated their terms to read: “In order to create a TodaysMeet account, you need to be 18 or older, or be 13 or older and have your parent or guardian’s consent to this Agreement, and have the power to enter a binding contract with us and not be barred from doing so under any applicable laws.”

The point of this original post was not to call out certain services or products for their failure to acknowledge whether or not students <13 can lawfully use the service, but to relay the importance of reviewing terms (for educators and parents) before deciding whether to allow the use of tools.

Blink and it’s over.

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As a parent, I’m learning so much. Every day is a new adventure, and each day brings a new series of understandings and mistakes and opportunities and regrets. All of these experiences help me grow as a mother.

Today I looked around our living room and did a mental inventory of the cars, trucks, Legos, puzzles, stuffed animals, and books strewn about the room. I noticed my son was playing with a puzzle that I bought for him when he was only 8 or 9 months old, and now, at 21 months, he seems to really enjoy.

“Why did I buy that for him so long ago?” I wondered. “Why did I think he needed to rush into completing puzzles at such a young age?”

I thought next about the riding toys, wiffle ball bats, plastic bowling set and other outdoor play things outside on the porch. I remember when he received one of the riding toys how excited I was to watch him ride around on it. That was months ago, and he still isn’t that interested in riding around like I thought he might be.

Sometimes I think, “I can’t wait until he is older so he can do this or ride on the rides at the amusement park or hold a conversation with me.” And sure, those moments will be thrilling, but why am I wishing away the present? Too often, I am looking ahead, excited about the possibilities of his future, thereby neglecting to appreciate the now.

We do this in schools with our students, too. We’re constantly focused on what’s next instead of appreciating and acknowledging what’s going on right now, in front of us. 

When kindergartners arrive, we focus on what they need to learn and be able to do so that they’re prepared for first grade. We don’t spend enough time cherishing them as 5 and 6-year old children, who bring a wealth of experiences with them, who desire to learn in new ways, ways that are appropriate for their right now, not for their next year.

When students move into the later elementary grades, we focus on preparing them for middle school. We need to ability group/switch for content/make them use a binder/complete projects this way/organize everything the way middle school would in order to prepare them for their futures. The same happens in middle school, high school, and even the collegiate level.

Am I saying we shouldn’t prepare kids to be successful in the next phases of their lives or not to challenge them? Of course not. But in doing so, in stressing what’s next, in allowing ourselves to succumb to the pressures of needing our kids to be more than what they are, we neglect to honor the needs of those children who sit in front of us presently.

As the school year begins, I challenge you to truly see who sits in front of you. To get to know and love each of your students, find out what they need presently, serve them graciously, and reap the rewards from the time you have to spend together.

I’m going to keep snuggling my baby as long as he’ll allow me to. When I’m exhausted, and my back hurts, and when I don’t want to carry him up the stairs, I’ll remember that at the moment, he needs me to hold him, and that one day, I won’t have that luxury.

 

Questions about communication.

CC Licensed Photo Shared by Melvin Gaal
CC Licensed Photo Shared by Melvin Gaal

One of my district’s recent projects has been thinking through and seeking to transform the way we communicate via digital means. These are some questions that come to mind when I contemplate digital age learning and communication.

Dear Superintendent,

If I were a parent moving into your district, would I be able to access quality information about your schools online? Not just test scores and state report cards – but a real, true, authentic look into the classrooms and learning in your schools? Would I be able to Like your school’s Facebook page and follow your district on Twitter, and receive timely updates in my own social media streams or through a district app? Does information from your district come to me? Or do I have to go out and find it myself? Can I comment on and re-share district news?

Are there methods in place for informing me about issues in times of crisis? Is it clear where and how I should be locating that information and/or how the information comes to me? How can I easily find out about your district’s policies and procedures? Are directories readily available so I can contact who I need to, when I need to? How do you collect, store, and protect my child’s data? Who do you share it with and why? How can we access our child’s data at any time?

Are you proactive in publishing critical news and updates to community members or reactive after stories hit the local news?

Do your communications clearly share your vision for learning and the resources, concepts, programs, standards, and instructional techniques used to help students achieve? Do I know what your leadership team hopes to accomplish this year and beyond, in five years? Ten years?

Are all subgroups and populations equally represented in communications? Can I find as many stories about learning in the primary classrooms and emotional support classrooms as I can about high school sports achievements?

How do you accommodate for families who do not have Internet access available at home or Internet-enabled devices? Are your communications able to be easily translated for speakers of other languages? Are your district’s facilities opened up to the public to allow those without access to stay current and engage with your online spaces? Are paper communications used to reach all stakeholders in the absence of connectivity? What are you doing as a school leader to help local and government leaders get access for everyone in your community?

Do you have an online presence as a learner? How do you model for your staff and students that you continue growing and learning as a leader? Do you communicate efficiently, effectively, and consistently with your staff?

Am I a welcomed visitor on your campus? How will I feel that I am welcomed?

Dear Principal,

I want the best for my children, as I know you do. When I want to learn more about your school, can I go to your school’s blog or website and see learning taking place? Does your online presence demonstrate to the public why your school is a special place to learn? Why are your teachers special? Students? Staff? Community? Who are they? What do they believe in? Does your school’s vision and mission shine through in all of your communications? What events and activities are being shared to spark excitement and interest in your school community? How are your postings and your online presence modeling respectful and powerful online communications? Can I see photos of learning in action? Do you use Instagram or Flickr or similar to allow glimpses into daily school life?

Does your district respect the demands on my time as a busy, working parent, offering various structures (online and offline) and opportunities for learning and for parent involvement? Are there Twitter chats or Google Hangouts or live streams of events that I can attend virtually if I can’t attend in person? Are things archived for easy access after events? Are there regular opportunities for parents to provide input on various aspects of school life?

Can I find common forms on your website, things I can access quickly and easily? Schedules, handbooks, menus, bus information, directory information, policies, procedures? Do you report daily or weekly happenings in the form of school news or interactive bulletins? Do you offer the same benefits for your staff through consistently-maintained information processes?

Am I met with smiles when I enter your school’s doors?

Dear Teacher,

You spend countless moments day in and day out creating stimulating learning environments and designing learning experiences for our children. Do you communicate the ideas shared in class with your students’ families? Do your students’ families know what your class values and admires and works to achieve? If my child was in your class, would snapshots of the week’s learnings be available to me through your class blog or website, or your class’s Twitter feed or Facebook page? How can I communicate my questions and concerns with you? How do you involve my child in the communication process? How is my child expected to share his learning with you, with me, with his peers, and with an authentic global audience?

Do you share what you do with other teachers who are looking to bring the best they can to their students? Do you freely share resources, ideas, content, and time with your both your local and global colleagues, knowing that in the spirit of reciprocity you, too, will benefit from what others share? Do your students know you are a learner first?

Is my feedback welcomed and encouraged? Can you help me understand the difficult work that you do in a way that helps me best support my child?

Am I met with smiles when I’m welcomed at your classroom door?

Dear Parent,

Don’t settle when it comes to your child’s school’s communication methods. You deserve to understand the full breadth and depth of your child’s learning experiences and to be embraced as part of the learning community. Your voice deserves to be heard and acknowledged. You should expect not only to be involved with your child’s school, but to be engaged.

 

What else should we be asking ourselves about the way we communicate in school communities?

A strong #ascd12 finish with Todd Whitaker

My first introduction to the work of Todd Whitaker was through reading his book, What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things that Matter Most. Todd’s writing style immediately captured my attention. He aptly defined the characteristics of strong principals and described those things I most wished to accomplish as the principal of my school. Easier said than done, of course, but I certainly appreciate how Whitaker takes his many years of experience in education and offers inspirational guidelines for success for administrators (and teachers, another great read).

My next encounter with Todd – I feel like we’re on a first-name basis now – was through our interactions on Twitter. If you don’t follow him, you should, for both the educational resources he shares, and his humor. He’s truly a joy to know virtually, and has offered guidance and support to me over the past year.

And then, last weekend, I had the chance to meet Todd Whitaker for the first time, when he addressed a large group of educators who battled the temptations of the snooze alarm to attend an early morning session on the last day of ASCD. His session, entitled What Great Teachers Do Differently, was filled with amusing allegories, sage advice, and “why didn’t I think of that?” lessons. Warning: Long list of session highlights ahead. I took a lot of notes.

  • In a school, if we don’t have difficult teachers, we don’t have difficult parents.
  • When someone asks you how your day is, say you’re having a great day! How does it help anyone to tell them about the bad day you’re having?
  • The ability to know how we come across and how we are being received by others is the difference between effective and ineffective people – ineffective people have no idea how they come across- to students, to colleagues, to parents, etc.
  • Why do some teachers stay behind their desks all day? They’re afraid of the kids. They don’t know how to interact with them.
  • Some teachers and principals have a “Kids First” attitude. Others? “Kids first… right after me.”
  • It’s hard to envision what great teaching can look like until you see it.
  • Principals can name the teacher who will submit the most office referrals for the 2018-2019 school year. And class lists have not yet been made!
  • Parents bring you the very best they have.
  • Students do the best they know how.
  • Why do whiners whine? Because it works.
  • Stop treating people – teachers, kids, parents- like they are bad. Treat everyone as though they are good. When you see a child in the hall, assume they are doing GOOD. Ask, “How can I help you?” Don’t ask one child, “What are you doing? Where is your pass? Why are you out there?” and treat another child differently by saying, “Hi, and enjoy your day.” Why do we choose to do that?
  • Treat bad people like they are good. This makes the good people feel better and the bad people feel uncomfortable.
  • Great principals confront negative teachers and bad principals don’t. Neither WANT to confront those negative teachers. The difference is in the action.
  • Shift the monkey!
  • When bad people act inappropriately, it gives good people and good supervisors “the monkey.” The bad people have none. Shift the monkey.
  • Don’t take down all of the stall doors if one person keeps writing on it. Don’t punish the whole group for the actions of a single or a minority. (Let’s stop making the entire class put their heads down/missing recess/other consequences.)
  • In a great teachers’ school, nothing happens randomly. Great teachers have an intention behind every action: how the room is arranged, how partners are chosen…
  • Principals, one goal you should have when hiring a new teacher:  for the school to become more like the new teacher – not for the teacher to become like your school.
  • Admin, your teachers and staff want guidance, not corrections. Teach them how.
  • Don’t allow your new teachers emulate the veterans who aren’t good role models – get them to follow the leads of the strong teachers.
  • “Losers” pretend they are representing a whole lot of other people. The best people represent themselves.
  • Approach “crummy” people from the side, because they can’t stand it. The best teachers approach kids from the side, while the worst teachers approach them by drawing a line in the sand.
  • You can’t just win playing defense, you have to cultivate community.
  • Great teachers have an incredible ability to ignore. Ignore means, “I choose to respond or not to respond to something that’s taking place.” A great teacher has an unlimited ability to ignore. A poor teacher has no ability to do that.
  • “It is people, not programs.” Great teachers making a great school. 
  • To improve your school, hire better teachers or improve the ones you have.
  • The trend is to attempt to mandate effectiveness. You can’t do that!
  • “It is 10 days out of 10?” How many days out of 10 do you want students to treat you with dignity? They should expect the same from you.
  • “Arguing with a student is like wrestling a pig. You both get muddy, but the pig sure seems like he’s enjoying it!”
  • In a great teacher’s classroom, the kids don’t know the teachers have “buttons” because they’ve never been pushed. They’ve never seen them.
  • When is sarcasm appropriate in the classroom? Never. Humiliating someone in front of their peers under the guise of humor is unacceptable.
  • Leaders, make expectations clear from the beginning of the year.
  • Great teachers don’t have rules, they have expectations.
  • Teacher and admin evaluation systems systems are now mandating in attempts to teach the ineffective people how to be effective, when the effective people have been doing it right for a long time!
  • Every adults should say hi to every kid every time they pass them in the hall.  It doesn’t matter if that greeting is important to the adult, and it might not mean anything to the student, except for the one day that it does.
  • Classroom management has a lot to do with management of self
  • “The best thing about being a teacher is it matters. The hardest thing is that it matters every day. All the time.”
To close, Todd gave a shout out to Twitter and recommended that educators use the platform to connect with other great teachers and principals from around the world. I personally didn’t find ASCD to have an overly “connected” audience, but I did have the opportunity to meet with two administrators and get them started with developing their PLN, which was rewarding.
Thank you, Todd Whitaker, for your inspiring words in a time in the school year when it’s imperative to remember to “shift the monkey.” And thanks, ASCD, for the opportunity to share my conference experiences.

Getting to “I Can”

Educator Kiran Bir Sethi shared this inspirational message in November 2009, so perhaps you’ve already heard the story of how she and her colleagues in India’s Riverside School empowered their students to lead change among themselves, their school, their community, and their country. I just recently viewed this talk and found her message to be so simple, so real, and so attainable that I wished to share it with you.

Sethi sought to design a process that could “consciously infect the mind with the “I Can Button.” She believed that if learning was embedded in real world contexts, thus blurring the boundaries between school and life, that children would embark a meaningful learning journey. The steps of this process involve students seeing the change, changing themselves, and then leading the change in others.

Aware – Enable – Empower

Feel – Imagine – Do

This process directly increased student well-being and allowed students to become more competent and less helpless in their own learning. I was so intrigued by Sethi’s descriptions of the authentic examples of how her students changed the perceptions of child labor in their community. Having first lived the experience, they enabled themselves to transform their own thinking. These experiences changed mindsets. They caused her students to passionately educate and lead adults in their community to understand more about this issue. And these weren’t high school students taking to the streets with their message- these were 10 and 11-year olds.

The “I Can” mindset is a shift from “teacher telling me” to “I can do it.” Isn’t this what we want for all of our students? How can we make this happen in our classrooms on a daily basis? This technique may seem well-suited for lessons involving the social sciences, but what about math? Reading? What about the pressures for students to succeed on those pesky standardized tests?

The Riverside School parents had the same questions. While they appreciated that their children were becoming better human beings, they said to Sethi, Show us the grades. As she replied in her talk, And we did. Her students outperformed the top 10 schools in India in math, reading, and science. When children are empowered, they have the tools they need to do well in all aspects of their lives and education.

The Riverside School students influenced their city to devote time and “give to the children” because in the future, the chlidren will give back to the community. As we debate over tax increases to fund our schools and deal with incessant budget crises across our nation and beyond, I sometimes think our taxpayers and politicians fail to recognize that an investment in our students’ education is an investment in human capital. We want our children to return to the communities that educated them, and use their gifts to enhance our lives in many ways. Sethi’s students inspired their communities to recognize this important fact.

Sethi ends with, Contagious is a good word.  As we work to inspire children to say, “I can,” their enthusiasm will empower us as a learning community to say, “We can.”

How will you infect your learning community this year?

Crossing the finish line.

 

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user iman Khalili

It’s not whether you win or lose… it’s how you run the race.

Jonathan Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school students, parents and families, and teachers and administrators, all in the context of a system that is broken and failing our children. As Jonathan stated, it is “emotionally manipulative,” and the first sentence of the About the Film description on its website indicates that it indeed features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”

I didn’t know what to expect from the film, and I actually wasn’t prepared to take notes, but about 20 minutes in, I knew that I needed to write a reflection on the film’s contents. I covered the fronts and backs of scrap pieces of paper I had in my purse with seemingly incoherent scribblings. (I had owned my iPhone for about 1 hour prior to attending the screening, so, unlike Jonathan, was not yet skilled at taking notes on my phone in the dark. 🙂 The quotes below are my reflections as I remember them and may be paraphrased.

These are my take-aways:

On happiness:

  • Children are trying to balance lives that few adults would be comfortable balancing. Something that resounded with me was a student explaining how people always want to know from her, Aaand… “I’m a member of the student council.” And? “I have straight A’s.” And? “I play sports.” And? Why aren’t you doing any community service??!
  • We are basing students’ successes not on how happy they are, but rather on a systemic assumption that they need to get into a good college and make a lot of money, which will lead to happiness.
  • Why cant happiness be a metric used to determine the success of our schools? Why just reading and math scores? Focusing on academics alone does not respect the child.

On accountability:

  • We have a “tremendous preoccupation with performance.”
  • Our educational system is an inch deep and a mile wide. What is important is NOT “knowing a whole bunch of things.”
  • We’re always preparing kids for “what’s next.” Think about it: “In middle school, you will have to do X, so in sixth grade, we’re going to make you do X to prepare you.” “In fourth grade, your teachers will expect you to write in cursive, so in third grade, we’re going to learn cursive.”
  • Due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind, we teach students formulaically so they can pass a test, but if they encounter something unlike that which is on the test, they fall apart. The tremendous pressure to produce leaves out time for critical processing. Cheating has become “like another course.”
  • Kids want to know exactly what’s on the test and not go beyond it. We give them study guides! We base our teachings off of those guides!
  • Teachers feel like “yes men” doing what the district, state, or government wants, even if it’s not best for kids. One teacher cited the example, “like teaching them what a semicolon does.” She went on to explain the need for us to teach students critical thinking, problem solving, and how to work in groups. This passionate teacher explained that she wants for her students to be learners. She stressed that if you’re not teaching what you love, you can’t do this job. “I’m a mother to my students. I see them more than they see their families.” This teacher’s frustrations with the system and feelings of helplessness eventually caused her to resign.
  • The tutoring industry has exploded because we are treating all kids like they need to be in the top 2 percent academically. Children are nervous about upsetting and disappointing their teachers if they don’t perform. And that they may “lose recess” for incomplete work.

On homework:

  • “At what point did it become okay for school to dictate how a child will spend time outside of school?” It’s not about learning anymore.
  • There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.) In middle school, there is a slight correlation, but past 1 hour of homework, it lessens. Past 2 hrs of homework time in high school, the effect lessens. Reference made to Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s work, The Case Against Homework.
  • We all need to educate ourselves about the effects of homework. Why do we insist upon assigning it? Teachers think it’s necessary to cover content. Parents expect it.

On passion-based learning:

  • Our kids have grown up in a “world of training wheels” and have been coached from a very young age. They don’t realize they can fall off the bike and pick themselves up.
  • Instead of taking 5 classes, think, here are 3 classes I’m really interested in taking. One student expressed his belief that college is going to be a place where I “start to learn.” What does that say for his high school experience?
  • “Smart” has so many different meanings. The system is ignoring a great group of kids that is talented artistically, visually-spatially, etc. “Absolutely no appreciation for that kind of talent, or thinking.”
  • What creates the opportunity to be innovative? What does it take to create a creative human being? Children need time, so we must provide that downtime. Play is children’s work. It’s a tool to figure out how the world works. They’re not able to figure out what they love to do or find their passions without that freedom.

I was surrounded by a very emotional audience at the screening I attended. The movie was shown in the high school auditorium of a neighboring school district, one whose name is synonymous with wealth and high academic achievement. We have often looked to this district for ideas about how to implement programs and structure schedules due to their documented successes. The parents in the audience were likely those of high school students, and it was clear, from only 30 minutes into the film, that they would start to reconsider the types of discussions they would have with their children about learning and achievement. I wonder how this movie’s message made them view their roles differently?

There was a member of the audience with whom I’ve interacted on several occasions in her role as consultant. She has spent hours with our administrative team, reviewing the RtII framework, discussing data at great lengths, and yet, her best intentions noted, not once did we mention a child by name, or discuss actual, meaningful learning. I wonder how this movie’s message made her view her role differently?

The president of my parent-teacher organization approached me about the film and asked if I thought it would be beneficial for her to view. I agreed it would be, and she is taking a group of our parents to see the film in a few weeks. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

One of my colleague principals had a chance to view the film, and I feel it’s important for us to share our thoughts with the rest of our administrative team. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

I’m actually overwhelmed composing this post, as I decipher my notes to try to articulate just exactly what I’m feeling about this film’s message. I agree with the conclusions shared at the end of the movie that we need to rethink how we “do schooling.” What do we want to invest in? What matters most? The quality of teaching is what matters most.

We have to start asking ourselves how films like this, articles we read, success stories we hear, problems we encounter, and convictions we hold cause us to think differently. And then we have to do something about it.

There is no easy fix to the flaws in the system, because the inherent problems are so complex. But there is so much that we are doing right in schools across the nation and beyond. What I’d love to do is create a Race to Nowhere-esque documentary that captures and celebrates the extraordinary learning that’s going on within and outside of our classrooms each day. (Many of us do this with our blogs. But is it enough?) We need to share our successes with a wider audience. We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.

Be an artist.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin asks us to consider the task of emotional labor: doing important work, even when it isn’t easy. It’s the type of labor we often avoid, due to its difficulty and the fact that to some people, emotional labor is a gift given without reward. In reality, emotional labor perhaps yields the greatest benefits, to both the giver and the recipient of those efforts.

The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show- these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.

Godin’s message is to bring your gifts to work. Your initial reaction to this idea may be, “Why should I? I just want to leave work each day and go home and do things I enjoy and be around people I actually like.”

What gifts do you bring to your school? Clearly you seek to display your strongest leadership qualities on a daily basis, in the hopes of modeling and shaping learning for your staff and students. What art do you create on a daily basis, at work, that allows your organization to flourish?

If you believe that your role as administrator or teacher or parent does not fit the definition of “artist,” I ask you to consider the following:

  • Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
  • Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
  • Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
  • Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.
  • Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk-free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

I didn’t want this to post to be filled with feel-good fluff and void of actual instances of how I know emotional labor is being expended each day in schools, and how this work benefits our kids. In our elementary school, there are artists creating at every turn.

  • My guidance counselor recently designed a “break the mid-winter-blahs” picnic lunch day for the entire school using her gifts of compassion and her awareness of our school climate.
  • For a few weeks of the year physical education teacher transforms our gymnasium into an amazing obstacle course, complete with hanging “vines,” hula-hoops, clever contraptions made of PVC-pipe, and opportunities for rolling, tumbling, running, laughing, and learning.
  • One of my kindergarten teacher’s many gifts is her unrivaled ability to break into song, dance, skit, funny character voice… basically whatever theatrics is necessary…to excite and energize her students and engage them in learning.
  • My 3/4 hallway has this amazing chemistry. You can feel it when you walk through the hall. It hits you in the face. I love their contagious energy!
  • An incredible group of teachers and staff imagined and implemented a now-annual Day of Service for our entire school community in honor of a teacher who lost her battle with breast cancer last year.
  • Grade 2 teachers designed a Parent Blogging Night, where they will introduce parents to the learning opportunities their children will be involved in using blogs and where parents will help their child write their first post!
  • Students offer to stay in from recess to assist a teacher. They offer to make posters and visit you at lunch time and give you their ice cream and deliver cupcakes to you when it’s their birthday.
  • Dedicated parents in our parent-teacher organization write grants for technology and run science exploration clubs for our young scientists. Another parent blogged with a third grade class on his recent business trip to Shanghai and visited us upon his return to share this experience with our students.

None of these given gifts are written as requisite activities in teachers’ job descriptions, nor in any of those instances do you see the words standardized testing, curriculum map, or homework. They clearly all involve love, care, and learning.

How will you be an artist today? How will your emotional labor and efforts change your organization? Take a risk. Your passion-driven efforts will not go unnoticed, and you will find that when you expend emotional labor, although sometimes exhausting, it will be deeply gratifying. What we often forget, as Godin reminds us, is “The act of the gift is in itself a reward.”